President Obama’s extensive remarks in the White House Briefing Room this afternoon were as surprising as they were gratuitous. He had already made one statement asking citizens to respect the George Zimmerman verdict. Today he did so again but offered no specific policy recommendation with regard to race (although he used it as a forum to assail “stand-your-ground” legislation that ultimately was not at issue in the case).
In fact, Obama undid some of the closure he provided in his earlier written statement by intoning: “If a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.” So the jury was biased? The trial unfair? I can’t fathom why the president of the United States would stoke that sort of second-guessing.
The media seems fixated on “how personal” the speech was. I am baffled by that response. He is the president of the United States, the only elected leader there to represent us all and to provide cohesion, but here he was channeling Oprah Winfrey. He cheered for emotionalism and for the perspective that insists it is always about race:
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
What about the proposition that we regard individuals and their actions on the merits, that we view criminal defendants with the presumption of innocence and that we avoid pouring our own biases into a judgment about a fellow citizen? The jury system is all about rising above past grievances, grudges and suspicions. The Zimmerman jury put down its historical baggage, but the president asks that we sympathize with and encourage those who won’t.
Perhaps he is laying the groundwork for the obvious: After stirring emotion, the president can’t deliver a civil rights prosecution of Zimmerman because the facts aren’t there. “I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there,” he said, “but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.” And of course his own FBI found no evidence of racism. Odd that he didn’t mention that.
Even his analysis of African Americans’ troubles seemed condescending and defensive:
Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
The violent past is responsible? Perhaps Obama might concede that a breakdown in the family, a coarsening of the culture and a host of other facts might be responsible. But today was all about seeing things, you see, from the narrow perspective of race.
The president acknowledged partway through his remarks that the conversation about race he and his attorney general are urging is better done without politicians. Precisely. So why was he there? Anti-racial bias is at an all-time low, interracial marriage is rising and, as he pointed out, with each successive generation race becomes less of a big deal.
The presidency is not a parochial office, yet Obama fosters a view of America that says African Americans can’t help but see the country in terms of race. That is a sad and depressing view of our country. It suggests that African Americans can’t judge their fellow citizen individually, by the content of their character. It doesn’t require that we grow beyond the past or that we see things as they are now.
The president at the very end argued that “those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.” Too bad he doesn’t follow his own advice.